In 1981, ESPN approached the NFL about broadcasting live its annual college draft. Then commissioner Pete Rozelle, despite being a television visionary himself, was baffled. At the time, the draft was no more than a procedural meeting – a teleconference, really – headquartered in a New York hotel. Teams called in their selections. It was as boring as it gets.
That's a TV program?
"Why would you want to do that?" Rozelle famously asked.
Thirty-three years later, the NFL draft – which went from conference room to ballroom (for a few hundred fans) to the 5,000-capacity Radio City Music Hall – is now a TV juggernaut and cultural phenomenon.
Despite still being a relatively dull few hours of announcements and bear hugs, tickets to the event sell briskly on the secondary market. The first round draws ratings comparable to a World Series game. Insatiable fans call for nearly year-round coverage and speculation. They even made a Kevin Costner-Jennifer Garner movie based on it.
And the draft might now be ready to enter its next stage – which should produce once-unthinkable scale.
The draft could be coming to a city near you.
NFL owners meet Tuesday in Atlanta and there is strong belief the league will decide to take the draft on the road, moving it out of midtown Manhattan to one of the other 30 NFL cities – or even beyond.
Rather than just replace New York, the draft could rotate, sort of like a mini-Super Bowl. Almost every NFL city is interested, with Chicago, Boston and Arlington, Texas, talking the loudest about seeking a chance to play host, starting as soon as the 2015 event.
New York remains a romantic backdrop for the draft – it's the media and business capital of the country. There remains something alluring about a young star from some small-college town arriving in Gotham for the first time, staring up at the skyscrapers as he's about to make it big. While this is mostly a TV show, that feeling is cool and can't be duplicated. It's also geographically close to a number of fan bases and two franchises.
The draft, however, may have outgrown Manhattan. Pete Rozelle would, no doubt, be stunned.
The year-over-year growth of interest in the event (no matter how absurd that reality remains) calls for increased access that Radio City Music Hall, for all its glamor and history, struggles to offer.
Besides, the NFL is always about money, and the idea that cities are willing to bid to host this thing will not be ignored.
A rotating draft would generate huge excitement in the city it visits, exponentially more than seen-it-all New York. Anyone who attends the draft realizes it's not nearly that thrilling – so, like P.T. Barnum, it might be best for the league to pack up and move onto the next unsuspecting town.
Besides, getting out of Radio City changes the possibilities. What comes next is open to anyone's imagination. In 1994, the draft was still being held inside a ballroom at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.
If this goes national, it will almost certainly move to NBA/NHL arenas, where demand will fill the place.
Jerry Jones would like to put it in his mammoth domed stadium near Dallas, and does anyone want to doubt that 80,000-plus Texans would turn out? How about staging it outdoors – weather permitting – in a city square, with full festivals surrounding the announcements? The draft live from Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta or Grant Park in Chicago or with the backdrop of Jackson Square in New Orleans and overflow fans watching on giant screens in Woldenberg Park along the banks of the Mississippi? That's a little less sterile than New York.
Cities could double up with concerts or amusement rides or fireworks or military flyovers, or, well, this is the NFL, so nothing is out of reach.
The visuals of these events and local excitement wouldn't hurt the TV ratings, which continue to boom after current commissioner Roger Goodell smartly moved the event from a depressing noon Saturday start to celebratory primetime Thursday night and let it play out over three days. Teams now have huge draft parties and sports bars count it as one of the biggest nights of the year.
Unlike the Super Bowl, each NFL city could host the draft, perhaps even Green Bay. Even non-NFL communities such as Orlando, Fla., and Canton, Ohio, have publicly expressed interest. Los Angeles feels like a natural.
This isn't about having a warm climate or a domed stadium or 20,000 hotel rooms. The footprint is smaller than the Super Bowl, the weather is not a factor and it'll be a mostly local affair, a chance to offer something to fans across the country that have for years listened to J-E-T-S chants and booing Eagles fans and wanted in on the absurdity.
The NFL says no decision has yet been made, but add the NFL's frustrations with Radio City Music Hall as a facility – which pushed back the draft to May this year – and this feels like fait accompli.
New York brings nostalgia and a tangible feeling of importance that perhaps no other city can match.
Nearly everyone else, however, seems willing to try. And the NFL appears willing to give them a chance by taking this most unlikely of hit shows off Broadway and on the road.